The Black Parasol
A ghost story, recommended by Dzanc Books
AN INTRODUCTION BY GUY INTOCI
I first came across Jack Pendarvis’s stories many years ago as an intern at MacAdam/Cage Publishing. Might have been the first day, might have been sometime during the first week, but it couldn’t have been much longer before someone asked, “You know ‘Sex Devil’?”
Which, I mean, is not a question you get asked every day — not even in San Francisco, where the publishing house was based.
It was a story from Jack’s first collection, The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, which the house had published a couple years earlier. I answered that I was unfamiliar — a shameful admission, in hindsight, but one that had the added benefit of ending all manner of work in the office that day.
For the rest of the afternoon, everyone in the room took turns reading Pendarvis’ stories aloud, often arguing over who would get to read which one and in what order. And it’s not a big book, really. It wouldn’t have taken the whole day, except for the number of lines that needed to be repeated a second and third time — if not more. Sometimes the reader cracked up too hard to make any sort of sense, other times the audience was laughing over the speaker in anticipation of jokes they had committed to memory.
When people ask me what kind of a writer Jack is, I think about that impromptu reading and the many subsequent ones it would spawn, eventually at my own insistence. I guess the short answer — the best answer — is that he’s the kind who makes you ask people if they’ve heard of him, and you’re equally excited by either answer. If they say yes, you know you’ve found someone on “the level.” If they say no, well, you’ll find yourself standing there not just recommending that they check him out, but demanding they shut up and listen as you recite lines from memory.
But with “The Black Parasol,” from the upcoming collection Movie Stars, I’m reminded that there’s another distinction to be made about Jack’s writing, too. These aren’t merely funny stories. First and foremost, they’re sincere pieces about people more similar to us than we’d sometimes like to acknowledge. They’re portraits of ourselves, of our society, and the ways we long for something just beyond our reach. They speak to who we are when no one else is looking, and who we want to be when they are.
Now shut up and listen.
Editor-in-Chief, Dzanc Books
The Black Parasol
“The Black Parasol” by Jack Pendarvis, recommended by Dzanc Books
Amy O’Brien, all alone, took a walk at night through the dilapidated town square of Ordain, Mississippi, to the creepy old doll hospital where the horrible murders had taken place. She pressed her palm to the cool lemon stucco just as lightning struck.
O’Brien ducked around the corner and under an awning. Big, slow drops of rain began to pelt the canvas.
Past the end of the alley was a bar she had never noticed, made of red cinder blocks. It had a glossy black wooden door. Warm yellow light streamed from the dirty windows.
The rain and wind picked up. She ran for it.
The insides were dimmer and gloomier than the welcoming light had suggested. At the end of the long bar, one old man shook dice in a long leather cup while another old man watched. A jowly, furtive middle-aged couple sat at a table in a far corner, staring at their empty glasses.
The rain came harder still. The bar’s corrugated tin roof rang and roared with it, a sound both pleasant and frightening.
O’Brien stood just inside the door. There was no bartender. Powerful rumbling rattled the bottles. She stepped up bravely and took her place on a stool. O’Brien steadied herself, putting her hands on the clammy bar. The surface was light green streaked with black, made of futuristic material, like a kitchen counter from the 1950s, so ugly. The old men kept going with their game. O’Brien turned and tried to get a better look at the soft, chubby couple — man and wife, she imagined, having a terrible anniversary.
When she turned again the bartender was there, slicing up a puny lime on a white plastic cutting board as if he’d been there the whole time. He looked up at her and smiled. He was a handsome, dark guy with crooked teeth and a funny hat. Like, a half-black guy, maybe? Not that it mattered. She kicked herself for even wondering. The air smelled like limes. O’Brien heard guitar music, snatches and hints above the rain outside.
“You ordering, sweetheart?” said the bartender.
He wiped his hands on his apron.
“Got some ID on you, sweetheart?”
“Oh, I’m twenty-five. I get that a lot.”
“Still need to see it, darling.”
He didn’t look any older than O’Brien, and certainly not old enough to call women “sweetheart” and “darling” with such casual sincerity. Was it some irritating Mississippi affectation? She thought she would say something about it, but didn’t. She gave him her driver’s license.
“Could I get a white wine spritzer?”
He laughed at her.
“It’s a funny drink.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “Yeah, but it’s what I want.”
“You got it, sweetheart.”
The bottle of white he grabbed from the little glass-doored cooler had about a quarter left in it, the cork barely jammed into the neck.
She finished half her drink in two desperate gulps.
“Oh baby,” she said.
“Whoa, you really wanted that white wine spritzer.”
“Brother, you have no idea. Tell me about your hat.”
He took it off and examined it. His hair was very curly. He frowned and picked a piece of lint off the crown of his funny hat.
“Want to hold it?” he said.
“No thanks, sport.”
He showed it to her from a number of angles. “It’s felt, but sturdy. It’s bespoke. Do you know what that means?”
“Okay, a lot of people don’t know what that means. But okay, you’re all right. I dated this hatter from Tennessee. She’s famous on the internet. I did a lot of research on this hat.” He put it on again, cocked it just so. “Some call it a Goober hat or a Jughead hat. I saw an old picture of one and they called it a whoopee cap. It was also associated with juvenile delinquency. You’re supposed to stick collectible pins in it, but I don’t choose to do that. The felt is mulberry, an unusual color for this kind of hat. My girlfriend picked it out, my ex-girlfriend, the well-known hatter, she picked out the color, said it went well with my rich skin tone. Well, you’d have to see it in the light.”
O’Brien downed the rest of her spritzer. “That was one sour-ass spritzer,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, honey. Don’t serve much white wine in here. I’m sure that bottle was pretty skunky. Want the rest of it? No charge.”
“Hell yes,” she said.
The door blew open. A flash of purple lightning showed a tall, thin figure draped in a long black cape. O’Brien could smell stinking wet wool all the way across the room.
“No book tonight, Doctor?”
The cadaverous stranger shook his head.
“Too wet, I guess,” said the bartender.
The man hung his dripping cape on a peg by the door. His slate-dark hair, parted in the middle, reached his shoulders. Putting down his twisty walking stick, he wrung out one side of his hair and then the other, splashing rainwater on the floor, and moved to a large round table in the middle of the bar, obviously his regular spot.
The bartender got a cheap bottle of port and filled a whole water glass with it. After he had delivered it to the tall, thin man, he came back and leaned over the bar, speaking quietly to O’Brien as if in confidence. “Dr. Cherubino. He usually brings his big black book. It must be two feet tall and a foot across and five inches thick. I don’t know how he carries it. He lays it out on that table there and gets out an old ink bottle and some blotting paper and writes in it with a big old goose-quill pen.”
“What is it?”
“You should go ask him about it.”
O’Brien looked over her shoulder. The man was there in the dark, staring at her. She gave a little shudder.
The bartender pushed another spritzer in front of her.
“How old you think he is?”
O’Brien took the tiniest sip of the new spritzer. She grimaced.
“Oh, that’s the worst,” she said. “Yeah, I don’t want to look at him again. I don’t know, fifty-five?”
“That’s the thing. He must be eighty. He’s been all over the world. People gave him herbs and all kinds of things to make him live longer. Techniques and secrets.”
Despite herself, O’Brien looked back at the doctor again. He was crumbling something into his port, maybe a dried leaf.
“You should talk to him. What else are you going to do? You two would really hit it off.”
“Seems like a loner.”
“Aw, he’s an old ham.”
The bartender went back to his sad lime. O’Brien contemplated her flat spritzer. She looked back at the old man and thought what the hell. She went over.
“Hi, I’m O’Brien. Do you mind if I sit down?”
He spoke without looking at her. “When I was a young man I broke my back entirely. I was healed by a weird shaman.”
O’Brien took it as a yes. She pulled out a chair at the end of the table.
“I like your stick,” she said.
“Crepe myrtle,” he said. And now that she was seated he looked at her. “According to Robert Graves, the myrtle is simultaneously the tree of love and the tree of death.”
“Wow,” said O’Brien.
Dr. Cherubino’s face was drawn and sunken, streaked with violet but not especially wrinkled. His eyes glowed black.
“What about this book of yours?” said O’Brien. “I’m hearing about a book.”
Dr. Cherubino looked down at the table as if expecting to see his book in its usual place.
“I collect ghost stories,” he said. “Ghosts interest us because they seem to blur so many lines we don’t acknowledge — and by blurring, to make them clearer, curiously. Presence and absence, life and death, dreaming and waking, the real and the unreal, sanity and madness. These are just a few of the categories we refer to as ‘opposites,’ unthinkingly.”
“So you write ghost stories?”
“I seek them out. I try to record them faithfully. Do you have any?”
“Who, me? No. I mean, I apparently said some strange things as a kid.”
“You know, I’m Korean. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. Don’t ever remember being there. I was adopted, obvi. I complained that somebody named ‘Hot Dog’ was keeping me up all night making faces at me, which everybody thought was hilarious. And Mom said, ‘Are they funny faces?’ Apparently I shook really hard, I shook all over, and I said, ‘No, he scare me.’ Wow, I had forgotten. It’s stupid. ‘He scare me.’” She laughed. “Creepy.”
“I’d like more details, if you please,” said Dr. Cherubino.
O’Brien shrugged. “I was little. There was other stuff.”
“If I might interview your parents…”
“They don’t remember it any better than I do, really. It’s just things we say when we get together. I don’t know if you can even call them memories anymore. Just silly things we say that make us laugh. Inside jokes, family stuff.”
The bartender approached. “I’m stepping outside for a smoke,” he said. “Y’all need anything?”
“I’d be honored to buy you a drink,” said Dr. Cherubino to O’Brien. “I hope you will be encouraged to continue our conversation over it.”
“Maybe just a bitters and soda,” she said. “But you don’t have to pay.”
“Bitters and soda on the house, sweetheart,” said the bartender. He went to get it.
“I don’t believe I know your people,” said Dr. Cherubino. He took a luxurious swallow of bad port and licked his lips. “Are they immigrants to the area?”
“This area?” said O’Brien. “I’m not from around here.”
Dr. Cherubino looked disappointed. He dabbed at himself with a cocktail napkin. “My work is exclusively concerned with a fifty-mile radius, of which I like to fancy this establishment the exact center,” he said.
He leaned in. O’Brien leaned back. He leaned in closer, his hot breath like an expensive and dreadful cheese. O’Brien moved her chair.
“Are you quite aware,” he said.
“Bitters and soda,” the bartender interrupted, bringing the drink.
“Pretty,” said O’Brien.
It was pretty — a big, clean water glass. There were bubbles and lots of ice. The angostura wafted pinkly, coloring the water.
“I put a lime in it,” said the bartender. He looked proud.
O’Brien turned and looked at his butt as he walked away, apron strings tied above it. He had a little spring in his step. He pushed his bespoke hat forward on his head in what he probably thought of as “a jaunty angle.”
When she turned back to face the doctor, his big, sad eyes looked like hypno wheels. His long hair hung down, the color of a gravestone rubbing with a No. 2 pencil. He was an uncanny-looking dude wearing a lot of rings with gems of dark colors, blood and indigo. His caved-in cheeks were like black holes trying to suck in the rest of his face. He should have had moss growing on him. His eyelashes were like cobwebs.
“My dear, you look peaked,” he said. “A sip of soda might do you good.”
She looked at it, paranoid. Sure it was pretty. It glowed, like a witch’s frosted house. Drink it down. The magic potion. Come on, dearie, it’s just like medicine. Where was she? She didn’t know anybody. Dr. Cherubino and the bartender could be in on it together. They could be adept at luring.
“As I was saying before we were interrupted, you find yourself in the most haunted area of the United States, as far as such things can be measured. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, inevitably.”
“That’s so interesting, listen, I’m going to be going,” said O’Brien as she rose.
“Oh, my dear,” said Dr. Cherubino. He grabbed his walking stick, which was leaned against the table, and hoisted himself up an inch or two — out of politeness, maybe.
The bartender came through the front door, through which he had supposedly gone for a smoke, and strode toward the table with alarming speed, an unlit cigarette behind his ear.
“This is it,” O’Brien said out loud. Her legs shook.
“I’m sorry,” the bartender said when he reached the table. “I’ve just got to try that, if you don’t mind.”
“Uh, sure,” said O’Brien.
He downed her bitters and soda, over half the glass, and grinned with his pretty, crooked teeth. It really made him happy.
“I’m sorry, darling. I couldn’t get my mind off of it. It just looked so doggone tasty. I’m going to put it on the menu. I’m going to name it after you. I’ll make you another one. I’ll make you another O’Brien.”
“That was bizarrely presumptuous,” she said, but she was smiling. “No, I’m okay, I think.”
The bartender flopped into the empty chair between O’Brien and Dr. Cherubino with some force.
“Yeah, it’s dead in this dump,” he said. “Let’s move this party somewhere happening.”
“The young lady and I have business,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“What kind of business?”
“Business that is none of yours.”
“Ouch,” said the bartender.
O’Brien laughed. “I think he wants to put me in his book,” she said.
“See, now, that’s an honor,” said the bartender. “I’m not in your book. Am I? Why am I not in your book? I’ve been around a lot longer than she has. I have a cousin who’s done all kinds of stuff. She threw up a demon. Hey, I should get some credit. I’m the one who told her about your book.”
“It is emphatically not your place to publicize the personal interests or avocations of your customers.”
“You’re probably right,” said the bartender. “But you do carry a pretty damn big book everywhere you go. Not like it’s a secret.”
“We should continue our interview at my home, away from prying ears and eyes,” said Dr. Cherubino to O’Brien. “The rain seems to have stopped, and the walk will be pleasant in its aftermath. You can see the book resting on its special podium. I’ll take a few notes, nothing obtrusive, it will be much the same as passing the time in genial conversation. I have some excellent imported cheese of peculiar quality you might be interested in sampling for your pleasure.”
“I don’t know about wandering off. I don’t know my way around very well, not just yet.”
“But I’ll guide you, my dear. A leisurely walking tour. There are several haunted spots of some note betwixt here and there. I’d adore to gauge your elemental reaction.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’d like to walk home alone past, um…”
“Revenants?” said Dr. Cherubino.
“Sure,” said O’Brien.
“I’ll take you over there,” said the bartender, “and get you home safe, too. Where did you say you’re staying?”
“I didn’t,” said O’Brien.
“Have you ever been to my home, young man?” Dr. Cherubino asked the bartender. “I do not think you have ever been invited. In fact, I should be alarmed to discover that such was the case.”
“I know where it is. People point to it when they drive by. It’s an area of local interest.”
“I don’t suppose it is you who tosses his losing lottery tickets into my bushes,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“Boys, boys, there’s no need to fight over little old me,” O’Brien said. She laughed. Dr. Cherubino and the bartender looked genuinely puzzled. She frowned at them.
“I do understand the desire for a chaperone,” said Dr. Cherubino. “In fact, I commend it.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the bartender. “Me and her? We’re old buddies. I’m like her big brother basically. Right, sis?”
He reached over to put his hand on her shoulder and O’Brien jerked it away. The bartender laughed. He stood up and yelled at the old men rolling dice on the bar. “Gentlemen, I hate to break it to you but gambling is illegal!”
This got an appreciative reaction from the old-timers. The stouter of the two, the one who wore overalls, scooped up most of the pile of dollar bills, leaving some of them behind for the bartender. His unhappy, sallow friend wore a shiny old suit. With a shaky hand he plucked his fedora from the bar and put it on. His friend in overalls helped him off the stool.
“Guess that does it,” the bartender said when the old men finally made it out the door. “It’s deader than hell tonight. What do you say let’s shut this sucker down? Won’t take me two seconds. I got it down to a science.”
“What about that couple in the back? Their glasses were already empty when I got here.”
“What couple in the back?” said the bartender.
There was no couple in the back.
While the bartender was closing up, O’Brien walked out front. The summer storm was over. She called her boyfriend. He didn’t answer. He was at the Hialeah racetrack in Florida, shooting an ironic serial killer movie. He never answered. So she texted him that she was going to an unknown location with two strange men.
AVENGE ME, she texted.
When the bartender emerged, he took the tarpaulin off of his motorcycle and sidecar. He felt the seat of the sidecar to make sure it was dry for O’Brien. He gave her a helmet, much too large.
It didn’t take long to get to the doctor’s house, and O’Brien was disappointed because she enjoyed the ride, pushing the big helmet around on her head to watch the stars come out where the sky had cleared, smelling grass and ozone, noticing the black leaves of the trees wetly sparkling.
As remote as the town was, though, it was a town. There were occasional sidewalks. It wasn’t the way she and her boyfriend had imagined. The doctor’s neighborhood could have been any quiet neighborhood — say a Polish neighborhood in Toronto.
They stopped in front of the doctor’s cozy-looking little house.
The bartender disembarked. He removed his helmet, retrieved his funny hat from the compartment where he kept it, and put it on very carefully. Only then did he help O’Brien out of the sidecar.
“That was a blast,” she said.
“Don’t take much to make you happy,” he said.
His hand remained on her arm.
“I’m having an adventure,” she said.
“House is dark. Did he say he was walking?” He left her in the yard, sprinted up the walkway, and rang the doorbell. He cupped his hands next to his eyes and tried to look in. “I think I hear somebody bumping around in there.”
“Here he comes,” said O’Brien.
Streetlights were few, but the gaunt bird took the middle of the empty street, wings of his cloak fluttering behind him.
“We can’t get in the front way,” he said. “My apologies. The screen door is permanently stuck.”
He took them around the house, up the back steps, and through a small screened-in porch, perfectly square and cluttered. He let them into a tidy kitchen which had the faint but unpleasant scent of vinegar, possibly used as a cleaning agent.
The doctor placed his cane in an umbrella stand and hung his cape over it so that it resembled a dingy ghost.
He said, “I promised you cheese.”
They watched as he removed a pale wedge from his refrigerator, watched as he shuffled with it to the counter, where he carefully removed each of his rings and lined them up in a particular order before choosing a utensil from a wooden knife block.
He got out a sheet of wax paper, smoothed it on the counter, unwrapped the cheese, and set to work cutting it, wincing once as the tip of the knife entered his thumb.
He held a blood-speckled cube of whitish cheese to the light and frowned.
“Bad augury,” he said.
“Uh-oh,” said the bartender.
Dr. Cherubino put his thumb in his mouth and sucked thoughtfully.
Once he had cheese and crackers lying on a plate, Dr. Cherubino returned his rings to his fingers and had O’Brien and the bartender follow him down a dark hallway toward the front room.
The narrow hall was made narrower by bookcases on each side. The bookcases were full. Books were piled on top of many of them, and stacks of books sat on the floor against the wall wherever there was space. Above the bookcases there appeared to be old prints or etchings, though it was too dark to tell what they were. The air was thick with the sweet rot of paper. O’Brien sneezed three times, rapidly.
“Bless you, bless you, bless you,” said Dr. Cherubino.
They came into a large, scantly furnished room with an expensive-looking rug on the wooden floor and a podium set up as if for an audience of two, for it faced a loveseat, the room’s only place to sit. Hanging on the walls in bulky, chipped frames were torn old photographs of wildly bearded men with glittering expressions and sternly coiffed women who seemed to have peach pits where their eyes should have been.
At a distance behind the podium were two closed French doors with blue velvet drapes hanging inside them and hiding the next room from view.
“The haunted sewing room,” Dr. Cherubino said, gesturing at the closed doors. “I do not own a coffee table. If you don’t mind, we’ll place your refreshments on the ottoman.”
O’Brien and the bartender sat on the mahogany loveseat, which was cushioned in stripes of purple velvet — dark and lighter purple alternately. They were close by necessity, facing Dr. Cherubino’s maple podium, carved on which was the motto IN ARENA AEDIFICAS. Another large room behind the guests — an open dining room, unlighted — made the hair on the backs of their necks stand up. They could feel it behind them, and both were compelled to turn their heads and look into the dark for a moment. It contained a table and chairs, a Victrola, and as far as they could tell, nothing else.
Purplish beams from a streetlight striped the room. Dr. Cherubino lit several large black candles — on the mantel, a small table, and the windowsills — to help.
O’Brien and the bartender stared at him with some anticipation as he solemnly took his place behind the podium and opened the ponderous book with a creak and a great thud.
“Herein I have recorded, largely from eyewitness accounts, tales of untimely visitations from the phantom realms and other unusual occurrences. Amnesia, holy smells, stigmata, somnambulism — ”
“Holy smells?” said O’Brien.
“Intimates of the Catholic saint Padre Pio could smell him when he wasn’t there. The false messiah Sabattai Sevi was said to exude a marvelous aroma, so much so that the peasants began to gossip that he was using perfume. Naturally, neither of these fascinating mystics falls under the scope of my humble study. I bring them up merely as notable examples from human history. Locally, I have an interesting case involving hand lotion. But I think that to laymen such as yourselves, even a gifted one such as Miss O’Brien, an old-fashioned ghost story would be most pleasurable, most free of dry and pedantic speculations. There are several from which to choose.”
“What’s the scariest one you’ve got?” said the bartender.
“I would say without hesitation that the most chilling example I have collected to date is the story I call ‘The Black Parasol.’”
“Tell us that one, then.”
“I cannot. It is too chilling.”
“I think I can handle it,” said O’Brien. “Does the spirit of ‘Silky’ Dick Smythe haunt the abandoned doll hospital?”
Dr. Cherubino looked displeased. “Why would you ask such a thing?”
“I don’t know, this seemed like the time and place,” said O’Brien.
“Unknowingly, you have touched upon a sore subject. My late wife had a firm belief that she was the reincarnation of one of the victims of the notorious Teardrop Killer.”
O’Brien sat up straight. “Ooh! Is that what they called him?”
“My dear wife always felt, based on the content of her nightmares — if that is what we wish to call them — that the wrong man was blamed for those murders. She would say no more. It was a point of contention between us, her stubborn secrecy as to her personal revelations on the matter. Naturally, we do not like to be reminded of our petty squabbles with cherished ones who have departed. So you will forgive, I trust, this one lapse in my otherwise exhaustive catalog.” Dr. Cherubino licked his long finger and flipped a few pages. “Here, for example, we find a series of incidents said to have occurred in this very house.”
“Exciting,” said O’Brien. She crossed her arms and rubbed them.
“Perhaps you would not think it so exciting were you Mr. Byron Welch, the previous owner of the property. He had no trouble for the first seven years he was living here, but then one summer night when the air conditioner was broken and he tossed and turned in his damp and sweltering bed, he heard a sound with which he was unfamiliar. Part of it was like a horse on cobblestones. Well, these were modern times, of course, and there were no horses to speak of in town, and certainly no cobblestones, and in any case the sound seemed to be coming from within the house. Beneath the clip-clop was a low whir or hum, almost a rumble. Taking the tenor part, if you will, came a high tacka tacka tacka, tacka tacka tacka. Mr. Welch was not a gambling man, but he did enjoy movies featuring high adventure in lavish settings, and to him this latter noise was reminiscent of a spinning roulette wheel with the bright little ball clattering among the grooves. Tacka tacka tacka, tacka tacka tacka. Was it the broken mechanism of the air conditioner, struggling to gain purchase? Byron Welch rose from the tangled counterpane and approached his bedroom window, outside of which the central cooling unit stood ruined and most silent. And still, from somewhere down the hall — from the room directly behind me this very instant, it so turned out, but more of that anon — came the unrelenting sound: tacka tacka tacka. Tacka tacka tacka.
“It so happened that some time prior to this occurrence, Mr. Welch had chanced upon a set of perfectly good golf clubs, it seemed to him, protruding somewhat obscenely from a trashcan on the street — his street, this street. One may conjecture about the amusing circumstances leading one of Mr. Welch’s neighbors — or let us presume the wife of one of Mr. Welch’s neighbors — to discard a set of golf clubs in such a fashion. But that is a story for another time, and for a decidedly more lighthearted anthology of domestic humor.
“Mr. Welch was not a golfer, but it seemed to him almost absurd not to avail himself of this peculiar and gratis merchandise. If he was not a golfer, nor was he a greedy man. He chose one club, one that appealed to him, an iron of pleasing heft and balance in his hands. He placed it by his bed, propped in the corner, and forgot about it. Only on the night in question did it occur to him that in its place and with its functional qualities the golf club might prove a protective instrument.
“The sound went on. Tacka tacka tacka. Tacka tacka tacka. Down the passageway stole Byron Welch, creeping stealthily, his trusty golf club raised as if to strike. When he put a toe on the threshold of this very room, the sound abruptly stopped. You may be sure Mr. Byron Welch assumed his cautious posture for several frozen minutes. But, for that night at least, the sound never returned. In spite of the swelter, Welch swore that a cold breeze passed over him, raising the goose flesh on his arms and legs.
“On Sundays, it was Mr. Welch’s custom to perform the charitable act of driving a group of elderly women to the Baptist church, and afterward for a luncheon at Shoney’s buffet restaurant in the neighboring town. It so happened that the incident in question had occurred on a Saturday night, so it was fresh in Welch’s mind. He could hardly help chewing it over aloud to the sweet old women in his charge. They clucked and said, ‘My, my,’ but really didn’t seem to pay it much mind, and eventually it passed from even his mind.
“After lunch he dropped off his ladies at their homes, one by one. At last there was just one passenger remaining, a Miss Grace Duncan, never married, who piped up from the back in her sweet voice, ‘I know what you heard.’
“By this time, Byron Welch had nearly forgotten about the matter. ‘What I heard?’ he inquired. Miss Grace reminded him by making the sound: ‘Tacka tacka tacka. Tacka tacka tacka,’ and somehow or another, a chill went up his spine. She just laughed, a tinkling, gay little laugh.
“‘Why, dear,’ she said. ‘That’s the sound of the treadle working on an old-fashioned sewing machine.’”
“Ooh, that gave me a shiver for some reason,” said O’Brien.
Dr. Cherubino smiled with his long teeth. “Now, you may choose to believe that the old woman’s passing comment acted as some sort of autosuggestion, coloring what happened next.”
“May I interrupt you?” said O’Brien.
“I believe you have just taken that liberty,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. I’ve been hit by an inspiration, and I don’t want to let the moment go by. That’s where the trouble always comes in for me: letting the moment go by. We really need to talk. This is lovely. I think I could get you some money for this, for your… work.”
“Money?” said Dr. Cherubino. With a bang he shut the book.
“Yes, I happen to be looking for this kind of material right now. Well, not this specifically. I never would have dreamed of it. But now that I hear it, I completely see how I could use it.”
“Use it?” Dr. Cherubino placed his palms on the cover of his black book. He placed them there with care, in the spirit of protection.
“I mean, you’d be cut in all the way, don’t get me wrong. Let me explain.” She jumped up and came toward him. By instinct, Dr. Cherubino hunched over his book, guarding it with his upper body. O’Brien backed off a little and Dr. Cherubino rose from his position almost sheepishly.
“Forgive me,” he said.
“No, I completely understand,” said O’Brien. “It’s a personal project for you. You’ve put a lot of work into it. I’m just thinking of a way it could benefit the community and get in front of a lot more people, so you could enjoy the benefit of all the incredible work you’ve done. I’ve been called here to help revitalize the downtown area.”
“That sounds terrible,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“Not at all,” said O’Brien. “Hear me out. My boyfriend and I were working for a big, important firm — ”
“Boyfriend,” said the bartender, mouth full of cracker.
“We wanted to get out on our own, hired guns, freelancers, consultants, see the country, bring big-city ideas to small communities in need. Plus which, my boyfriend was laid off and I quit in protest. It’s an exciting time.”
“Are you working for the Woodbines?” said Dr. Cherubino. The name seemed sour in his mouth.
“It doesn’t matter who hired us,” said O’Brien. “I’m working for the community. Now, what have you got going for you here? Not much, conventionally speaking. There’s some morbid interest in the, what did you call it? The Teardrop Killer. There’s a certain dark appeal to death tourism, sure. Did you know that the Lizzie Borden house is a bed and breakfast?”
“I shudder,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“It’s not for everybody. Or at least, not everybody wants to admit it. But what if we underplay it? People know about that part of the town’s history, sure. What Smythe did with those industrial rolls of silk. It can be the hook, maybe. No pun intended. Because he also used a hook. We don’t have to concentrate on the murders, not exclusively. We’re inviting people to the Most Haunted Town in America. Isn’t that what you said? Isn’t that what you call it? Isn’t that what it is?”
“I made some general remarks about the fifty-mile radius surrounding the bar,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“Oh, details,” said O’Brien.
“Many towns and cities claim to be the most haunted in America,” said Dr. Cherubino. “Including St. Augustine, incredibly, which is balderdash. I admit that I’ve let the falsehoods of such feckless city fathers rankle me, and sometimes at night, abed, I have considered what steps I might take to correct the rampant misinformation, the sloppy guesswork that passes for statistics in paranormal circles, the lack of regard for serious research. Were I to compose a stern form letter to various chambers of commerce, would that be just my human vainglory talking?”
“Oh, I don’t think so, sir,” said O’Brien. “I think you have to stand up for what you believe in. You’re already a local celebrity. I think you could be a national one. I see you leading tours, acting as a spokesman for the town. I see a school dedicated to the study of the ghostly sciences, with you as the dean in a special robe. I see a series of TV movies stimulating the local economy, shot on the sites of the actual events. My BF is a respected DP.”
“And my uncle was a world-class dipsomaniac,” said Dr. Cherubino. “Is. He is still with us at a hundred and ten, and so many of his betters cold in the ground. I am sorry. This is all so overwhelming. I wish there were a way to consult with my late wife.”
“Isn’t there?” said O’Brien.
“I have never had much luck.”
“Those things are evil,” said the bartender through another mouthful of cheese and crackers. “Ouija boards.”
“My Julia would have agreed with you. Some things stand out in my memory, chiefly the amazing speed with which the phrase ‘yellow fever’ was spelled out. The planchette fairly flew from our hands.”
“I have one,” said the bartender. “My great-aunt and uncle, this was her second husband, she met him in the Army. Well, they broke off from the Baptist church because she started speaking in tongues. One day she just started speaking in tongues and the deacons didn’t like it. And my great-aunt, you know, she’s pretty stubborn, so she’s like, ‘Fine! I’ll start my own church.’ So there was this preacher that was coming through town, one of these revivalists with the tents, they were going to set up out there behind the old fruit stand. You know that place. What it had for a roof was this huge slanting sheet of rusted-out metal that used to be the back of the screen for the drive-in movie. That’s all gone now. You remember the old fruit stand, Doc?”
“I do not,” said the doctor.
“Maybe I’m not describing it right. The front of the fruit stand was the back of the old drive-in movie screen. Is this ringing a bell?”
“I fear not,” said the doctor.
“You’d drive about two miles out of town and oh, never mind. It’s gone now anyway. Anyhow, nobody wanted this traveling preacher around. He was supposed to look like a praying mantis. Now, you’re not going to believe what happened next. It just may chill and surprise you.”
Dr. Cherubino took up his conversation with O’Brien again, as if the bartender weren’t there. “I must have some assurances if we are to continue any sort of discussion. My work is important to me.”
“Of course,” said O’Brien. “And I’d never use any of it without permission, if that’s what you’re worried about. Is that why you’re worried, Dr. Cherubino?”
“How did you know my name?”
“Oh! This guy told me.”
“Bill Dawes,” said the bartender.
“Is that your name?” asked O’Brien.
“Bill Dawes,” said the bartender.
Dr. Cherubino seemed to be considering many things. Finally, he spoke. “During my time in Greece I belonged to a secret society of thirteen individuals, each of us with a different talent. Are either of you familiar with tyromancy?”
O’Brien and Bill Dawes said they were unfamiliar with tyromancy.
“It is the telling of fortunes through the medium of cheese. Each tyromancer possesses his own peculiar methodology. One, for example, might have a rat as a familiar. The answer is given according to which cube of cheese the rat decides to eat.”
“Like throwing the I Ching,” said O’Brien.
“A fascinating comparison, and not an altogether ludicrous one. Yes, you intrigue me. I am inclined to trust you, young lady. In so many ways you bring to mind my Julia. The fact remains, however, that I am not able to consult oracularly on the matter as I would like. You have eaten all the cheese.”
“Sorry,” said Bill Dawes.
“No apology necessary. As your host, I provided it to be eaten, along with these delicious crackers from Israel. I had not considered that tyromancy might be required this evening. Truth be told, I seldom have occasion to practice that art any longer. It is a lonely business, practicing tyromancy for one’s self.”
“Do you want me to run out and get some more cheese?” said Bill Dawes. He took his mulberry Goober hat off his knee, placed it on his head, and rose.
“The cheese I require must be ordered specially through the mail services,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“Well, that was some good cheese,” said Bill Dawes.
“I didn’t get any,” said O’Brien.
“I’m a pig,” said Bill Dawes. “Hey, so do you want to hear about my cousin that threw up a demon or not?”
“We do not,” said Dr. Cherubino.
“Huh,” said Bill Dawes.
Dr. Cherubino took Bill Dawes’s vacated spot on the loveseat and motioned for O’Brien. She sat down next to him. He looked into O’Brien’s eyes.
“What I propose is a test,” he said. “I will tell you the story of ‘The Black Parasol.’ If you can bear to hear it from beginning to end without going mad, without screaming or begging me to stop or fleeing this house in terror, I will give serious consideration to your business proposal.”
“Sounds great,” said O’Brien.
“I need to use the can,” said Bill Dawes.
“All the way down the hall, to the left,” said Dr. Cherubino. “Please use the latch or the door will spring open on you while you are attempting to conduct your business.”
“The haunted toilet,” said Bill Dawes.
“Merely inadequate carpentry, I fear,” said Dr. Cherubino.
He watched Bill Dawes disappear down the dark hall before turning back to O’Brien.
“The facts of the case are well-known,” said Dr. Cherubino. “I mean, of course, the mundane, earthly facts. The fire occurred in 1885. I have all the clippings, the eyewitness accounts. The house of the Black Parasol stood on the corner of Hellman and Magnolia, which you must have passed on the way here. The lot contains the shuttered remnants of a gas station and convenience store.”
“I don’t remember,” said O’Brien.
“No matter. At the time of which we are speaking, it held a rambling, almost ludicrous structure, a prominent boarding house with a few unusual features. For one thing, the house was built directly onto the street. That is, there was no lawn. The immense boarding house was immediately accessible from Magnolia and took up a great deal of the lot. The family who owned and ran it were…” He gave her a look. “Woodbines. Mr. Woodbine was an older gentleman. His wife was some years younger but had never given him offspring. It was widely suggested that she could not. They had, however, adopted a young ward, Marcella by name, who, at the time of our story, was seventeen years old and to be married the following month. Now, I must tell you that another unusual feature of the boarding house was that the Woodbines had given over a portion of the ground floor to a lazy young grocer, who set up a small shop there.”
Dr. Cherubino was silent for a moment. He looked troubled.
“I will ask you once more. Are you acquainted with the Woodbines?” he said.
He looked at her.
“They’re a local family, I guess?” said O’Brien. “Important? Wealthy?”
“Yes, important and wealthy and powerful, and they do not appreciate the story I am telling you now.”
“Got it,” she said.
“The Crowns, to which my own Julia was related, are the true old family of Ordain, as regal as their name. A Woodbine won’t deign to hear of them. The Woodbines began as pretenders and, some would say, continue along that line. Crown is still a first or middle name hereabouts, but for two generations now no descendent of a Crown has given birth to a male heir. That is the Curse of the Crowns, well known. Though the remaining Crown sisters strongly identify themselves as such, the actual surname has evaporated — a wisp, a whisper, a ghost — whereas the Woodbines remain hearty and pervasive as weeds. Though his fellows be mowed down like blades of grass, a Woodbine sprouts his head from any tragedy, as my story will attest. For you see, the shiftless young grocer was Cullen Woodbine, or so he fashioned himself, who just showed up in town one day, supposedly the son of the elder Woodbine from a previous marriage. Some say that Cullen Woodbine was in reality a no-account bastard from God knows where, if you will forgive me.
“Young Cullen Woodbine maintained sleeping quarters at the house in addition to his little business. The source of the fire appears to have been a twenty-gallon can of kerosene belonging to him. How it came to be ignited is a mystery, if not much of one. Woodbine gave his account to the local paper, preemptively and rapidly, it strikes me. He had a theatrical engagement and asked his mysterious friend Sidney to watch the store in his absence. A theatrical engagement! Even in those more cultured times a curious alibi for this part of the state. Upon Cullen’s return, around midnight, he convinced the fellow Sidney, about whom not much is known, to stay over. They lay awake for the space of a half hour, talking amiably before succumbing to slumber. And now I will quote Cullen Woodbine’s public statement: ‘While we were talking we heard Miss Marcella overhead running her sewing machine. She generally sewed until a late hour, as she was to be married on February sixteenth, and was making her trousseau.’”
“Sewing,” said O’Brien.
“Indeed,” said Dr. Cherubino. “I have contemplated that very recurrence and considered the mythologies linking needlework to the raveling or unraveling of fate.”
Dr. Cherubino told O’Brien all about how Cullen Woodbine and his friend Sidney had drifted to sleep. The next thing Cullen knew, he told the newspaper, “I was startled from my sleep and found the bed on which I was sleeping enveloped by flames. I sprang from my bed and met my father in my room. I said, ‘My God, where is Miss Marcella?’”
In his accounting, Cullen Woodbine made himself out to be quite the hero, braving the flaming staircase in vain, assisting in various rescues of other tenants, at last fainting from the heat and smoke. The town constable, however, passed on a different story to the same reporter, having spoken with this Sidney, who had seen Cullen Woodbine earlier that evening, putting away a large box of matches. Cullen had asked him if he were hard to wake, and Sidney answered that he was. The next thing he recollected was Cullen whispering in his ear, asking him if he didn’t think something was the matter.
Dr. Cherubino, who had been telling his story with his eyes closed for some time, opened them.
“Whispering in his ear,” he said. “Didn’t he think something was the matter. Is he hard to wake? What was Cullen’s true relationship with Miss Marcella, by every normal societal measure his sister? But I go too far. Most prosaically, and with an old-fashioned good sense that may prove our best ally here, a final note in the paper informs us that Cullen Woodbine’s stock of groceries was insured at the princely sum of four hundred and fifty dollars.
“‘Notwithstanding the promptness of the firemen, the building was consumed, and at the same time, two persons.’ Ah. An elegance lacking in the tabloids of today. Mrs. Woodbine, having broken her thigh in a fall some weeks before the tragedy, was helpless, and perished. Likewise our Marcella. And here is where our story begins.”
“Wow,” said O’Brien. “Seems like it began a lot already, but okay.”
“We must forgive our ancestors. They were bereft of entertainment. Have you ever witnessed a person playing the spoons?”
“There was a Soundgarden video my brother loved,” said O’Brien.
“I have no idea what that means, nor do I wish to,” said Dr. Cherubino. “But I will ask you to imagine a world in which playing the spoons — slapping a pair of spoons on one’s knee or thereabouts — was the pinnacle of artistic achievement, as it certainly was in Ordain. For all I know, that may have been the nature of Woodbine’s theatrical engagement. We cannot fault the morbid turn that the curiosity of our own citizens took in the days after the fire. A certain Miss Isobel Hayes received a sealed letter from her beau, asking her to meet him at the site of the terrible fire well after curfew. There was to be a bright moon and I suppose the fellow had some Byronic pretensions, in love with the beauty of decay and ruin, or perhaps he fancied himself a Mississippi Baudelaire. In any case, Miss Hayes was properly titillated. She arrived as requested at the still-smoldering remains of the once-great house. Somewhere, a fox cried — the cry of the vixen, like a woman’s shrieking. Miss Hayes drew her shawl about her and called out to her beau. There came no answer. She had a mind to run back home, but as she turned to go the glint of the moon fell on some treasure. Thrilling to a wicked shock of avarice and taboo, Isobel Hayes stepped into the wreckage.
“Waiting for her was a curious object like a long bone, lying in a rapturous fan of what she took to be the most exquisite lace, blackened by flame. It was, she thought, the remnant of a fine lady’s parasol, a worthy souvenir. Imbedded in the handle of the black parasol was what seemed to be large, glittering red jewel. When she went to retrieve her prize, the lovely lacework fell away and disintegrated. Now her wonderful parasol was no better than a black stick, gritty to the touch and giving off an odor of smoky rot. She dropped it, repelled. Yet still the great gem winked at her. No matter how she tried, she could not pry it from the stalk that clasped it tight. And how she tried. Squatting there like a madwoman or an animal, this prim specimen, this beloved Sunday school teacher, growled and salivated with the effort. A domestic sound — the glassy congress of two milk bottles, say, or the mewling of a hungry infant; why not the crowing of a cock, dazzled by the burning moon? — restored her to her senses. She perceived her ashy crinoline. Miss Hayes hopped up and ran home, as you may imagine, suddenly no more than a scared little girl.
“You may imagine as well her horror when she arrived at her little room to strip away her dirty garments and cleanse her tainted soul, only to discover what she had carried with her, gripped in her fist, the entire way home unawares. Of course, it was the handle of the terrible black parasol. With a scream stifled by the dainty heel of her palm so as not to wake her parents, she banished the dreaded thing at once to the backmost part of her chifforobe, intending to return it to its proper resting place, the remains of the Woodbine boarding house, come the morning. She latched the door of the chifforobe and leaned a chair against it as a superstitious precaution. A few bitter drops of her mother’s laudanum helped Miss Hayes at last to sleep, until the softest sound awakened her: the gentle creak-creak-creaking of the chifforobe door.
“It was the peculiar habit of Miss Hayes to sleep with several pillows at her back, in a half-sitting position, so that all she had to do was open her eyes to see what lay across the room from her, the coursing moonlight lying in slashes upon it. The door of the chifforobe was hanging open, as was the mouth of poor Marcella, who hung in the air, whole and pale while her charred dressing gown blew in tatters, a living orange spark dancing here and there on sleeve or hem, her virginal body exposed, her virtuous face stretched out in an obscene parody of melancholy, as if she meant to speak in confidence to her bosom friend, her little Isobel, once again, the sad eyes of the phantom Marcella bubbling like gelatin, her sweet mouth a black hole, ringed by black teeth, and from the loathsome flickering of her huge and blackened tongue there issued forth a most unholy sound…”
All at once a violent shaking rocked them, a high-pitched, threatening, skeletal clatter that seemed to come from everywhere.
Dr. Cherubino clutched his chest and cried mercy.
O’Brien screamed and screamed. Dr. Cherubino fell forward onto her and she shoved him off. She got up and ran down the hallway, screaming. It was dark and she smashed into a pile of books, bloodying her knee.
The back door burst open and O’Brien thought she might swoon. She had never swooned nor fainted but suddenly she understood the feeling.
There was Bill Dawes, standing in the kitchen, laughing.
“Did I get y’all?” he said. “I guess I did!” He laughed some more.
“Get us?” screamed O’Brien. She ran toward him with her hand upraised. “Get us? You’re a bad person!”
“Aw, I just rattled the screen a little. Like a campfire surprise.”
He held her arm so she couldn’t slap him. She relented.
“I’m pregnant, you asshole!” she said.
“I served you drinks!” he screamed.
“Bitters and soda.”
“White wine spritzers!”
“I only finished one.”
“Bitters are like forty-five percent alcohol!”
“They are?” She was thinking about how you only used a few drops of bitters in anything, and was about to say it, when they noticed how quiet the house had become.
They found Dr. Cherubino dead. He lay on his back, eyes and mouth wide. His hair had turned quite white, and was dotted profanely with cracker crumbs. On the podium rested his book, filled from front to back, as the county sheriff would soon discover, with nothing but miniscule geometric symbols that only Dr. Cherubino could have read.